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Ethics in studies on children and environmental health
  1. D F Merlo1,
  2. L E Knudsen2,
  3. K Matusiewicz3,
  4. L Niebrój4,
  5. K H Vähäkangas5
  1. 1Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Istituto Nazionale per la Ricerca sul Cancro, Genova, Italy
  2. 2Environmental Health Institute of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
  3. 3Department of Psychology, Medical University of Silesia, Katowice, Poland
  4. 4Department of Philosophy and Ethics, Medical University of Silesia, Katowice, Poland
  5. 5Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, University of Kuopio, Kuopio, Finland
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr D F Merlo
 Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Istituto Nazionale per la Ricerca sul Cancro, Largo Rosanna Benzi 10, 16132 Genova, Italy; franco.merlo{at}


Children, because of age-related reasons, are a vulnerable population, and protecting their health is a social, scientific and emotional priority. The increased susceptibility of children and fetuses to environmental (including genotoxic) agents has been widely discussed by the scientific community. Children may experience different levels of chemical exposure than adults, and their sensitivity to chemical toxicities may be increased or decreased in comparison with adults. Such considerations also apply to unborn (fetal exposure) and newborn (neonatal exposure) children. Therefore, research on children is necessary in both clinical and environmental fields, to provide age-specific relevant data regarding the efficacy and safety of medical treatments, and regarding the assessment of risk from unintended environmental exposure. In this context, the stakeholders are many, including children and their parents, physicians and public health researchers, and the society as a whole, with its ethical, regulatory, administrative and political components. The important ethical issues are information of participants and consent to participate. Follow-up and protection of data (samples and information derived from samples) should be discussed in the context of biobanks, where children obtain individual rights when they become adults. It is important to realise that there are highly variable practices within European countries, which may have, in the past, led to differences in practical aspects of research in children. A number of recommendations are provided for research with children and environmental health. Environmental research with children should be scientifically justified, with sound research questions and valid study protocols of sufficient statistical power, ensuring the autonomy of the child and his/her family at the time of the study and later in life, if data and samples are used for follow-up studies. When children are enrolled, we recommend a consent dyad, including (1) parental (or legal guardian) informed consent and (2) the child’s assent and/or informed consent from older minors. For evaluation of the studies including children, a paediatrician should always be involved in the research ethics committee.

  • RECs, research ethics committees
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  • Competing interests: None.

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